The Private Collection of Edgar Degas

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Oct. 1, 1997 - Jan. 11, 1998

"Still Life with Fruit," Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 21 3/4 inches,

the Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Kate L. Brewster

By Carter B. Horsley

Collecting art is one of the great passions in life, an obsessive pursuit of objects that strike one's fancy, a tickling sensation of possession, lust, control, and fantasy.

It has many spurs: social acceptance, snobbery, elitism, tradition, curiosity, greed, inadequacy, fulfillment, competition, education, homage, veneration.

It provides the trappings of power. It is exciting and tempting and dangerous. It is elusive, adventurous and bold. It is satisfying, but it also brings responsibility to preserve and protect.

It is the cherishing of the tangible in order to try to understand the intangible.

It is an alliance with the art's creator. It is a part of the continuum of the object's history.

It is respectful. It is not reasonable.

It is exciting. It is ennobling. It is expensive. It is extravagant.

It is studious and it is sinful.

It is pious and it is painful.

It is not for everyone and it is never-ending.

As Michael Kimmelman noted in his Oct. 3, 1997, review in The New York Times of this exhibition of the private art collection of Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas 1834-1917):

"It's important to recall that aside from a few examples like Ingres's portraits of the LeBlancs (and Courbet's "Studio," which he tried unsuccessfully to get), Degas didn't really acquire the greatest works by artists but instead the ones that meant something particular to him, which, after all, is the right way to collect. He bought art because it was his instructor and companion, and he brought to collecting an engagement, even a passion, that should cause people to think twice about the common gripe that he is a chilly artist."

The handsome and excellent Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan is as fascinating for what it contains and reveals about the collector and for what it does not contain. The exhibition is a larger version of one held at the National Gallery of Art in London recently.

Degas came from an upper-middle-class background as his father was a banker, and he became successful enough in his later years to go rummaging at art galleries and auction houses for additions to his private collection.

By world-class standards, it contained, at his death, a dozen or so stunning masterpieces by other artists and half a dozen of his own finest paintings.

The best painting in the show is a bright, small still life by Vincent Van Gogh, shown above, that is dazzling and now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The second finest work is a sensational, small portrait of Vincent Choquet, a prominent collector, by Paul Cezanne, that is now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Art and was formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

The exhibit, sponsored by Texaco, Inc., would be worth visiting just to see these two gems.

Only slightly less impressive are Honoré Daumier's "Don Quixote Reading," now at the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff; major works by Paul Gauguin, "Day of the God," now at the Art Institute of Chicago, "Woman of the Mango," now in the Baltimore Museum of Art and formerly in the Cone Collection, and "A Vase of Flowers," from the National Gallery in London; Manet's "Gypsy with Cigarette," at the Art Museum at Princeton University, and "Berthe Morisot in Mourning," now in a private collection; Cezanne's "Apples," now in the collection of the FitzWilliam Museum at King's College in Cambridge, England, and "Self-Portrait," in the Oskar Reinhardt Collection in Winterthur, Switzerland; Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's "Amédéé-David, the Marquis de Pastoret," from the Art Institute in Chicago, and "Roger Freeing Angelica," now at the National Gallery in London; and El Greco's, "Saint Idlefonso," now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and formerly in the Andrew Mellon collection.

Degas is well represented by his own "The Millinery Shop," now at the Art Institute in Chicago and arguably his best painting, "Interior," also known as "The Rape," now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a provocative, mysterious albeit academic work, "Violinist and Young Woman Holding Sheet Music," now at the Detroit Institute of Art, a superb painting, "Monsieur and Madame Edmondo Morbili," a mesmerizing portrait work now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the luscious, large and formal "Family Portrait," also called "The Bellelli Family," a work now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris and a detail of which graces the cover of the show's catalogue, and the large and luminous "Mademoiselle Fiocre in the Ballet 'The Source,'" from the Brooklyn Museum.

Surprisingly, however, his rather nationalistic collection of other artists did not include Monet, or Seurat, or Lautrec, or the work of the Nabis and Fauves, or lesser but important artists such as Charles Daubigny, and his own famous series of ballet dancers and laundresses is not well represented.

Degas' collection is dominated mainly by extensive holdings of works by Ingres, Eugene Delacroix, Daumier and Paul Gavarni, the caricaturist, and unlike most collectors he did not concentrate only on paintings, or drawings, or prints, but divided his interests almost equally.

Degas began collecting seriously late in his life, and most of his acquisitions were around the turn of the century. For a number of years, he contemplated creating a public museum of his collection, but eventually abandoned the idea. The extent of his collecting, several thousand works, was not generally known and his collection not only was not accessible to the public, but was also kept mostly in boxes in his "ramshackle" three-story apartment/studio on the edge of Montmartre in Paris. The collection, totaling almost 8,000 items, was sold at 8 auctions in 1918 and 1919, and the auctions, actually interrupted by nearby bombing by Germans, were a major "art event" of the World War I period in Paris. Degas died in September, 1917.

Although he helped organized and participated in the major Impressionist exhibitions, Degas was separate from them in temperament and style, preferring the urban to the rural and line to the Impressionist blur. His major teacher had been a student of Ingres, the great NeoClassicist and draftsman and Degas revered him highly. Ingres, however, was challenged by the bravura emphasis on color and Romanticism of Delacroix, whom Degas also grew to worship. While one is tempted to say that Degas sought to synthesize the competing ideals of line and color, it may be sufficient to say that his maturing taste was alert to change and experimentation and that his work, while inconsistent in adherence to such principles, is resonant with both traditions. Indeed, his preoccupation with studies belies the final conveyance of spontaneity in some of his works. His ballet pictures celebrate line, but his landscapes are awash in color. His great portraits are assured lines set softly in contrast to Ingres's brilliant but often stark images.

Degas clearly was able to merge different influences and Manet is one of the most important as is the poetic side of Corot, who was not well represented in his collection.

The essays, by Ann Dumas, guest curator, Colta Ives, curator of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan, Susan Alyson Stein, associate curator of European paintings at the museum, and Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator of European Paintings at the museum, in the excellent catalogue ($60 hardcover and $45 soft-cover) provide the necessary historical insights into 19th Century collecting and Degas' relationships with other artists. One wishes that a bit of the thorough academic history and research had been sacrificed for more commentary on the art itself, but it is an illuminating and fine catalogue that is a worthy addition to any library.

Degas, who never married and who fell out of favor with many friends for anti-Semitism after the Dreyfus affair, "lived modestly, even frugally, keeping his house keeper on a tight budget," Ann Dumas writes in one of her catalogue essays, adding that "Degas spent little on personal comfort, reserving all his money for his collecting." His father, Hilaire de Gas, had become a successful banker in Naples where he went as a refugee after the French Revolution and had a modest art collection, some of which his son inherited and kept. One glass case in the artist's apartment, according to Dumas, contained "an album of prints by Utamaro and other Japanese artists displayed with the casts of the hands of Javanese women, a plaster cast of Ingres's hand holding a pencil, and some Neapolitan dolls."

As is the case with most collectors, emotions rule. At one auction, Degas apparently outbid himself only to be saved by an honest auctioneer. Dumas relates that a prominent dealer told the story about a leading expert on prints asking Degas for a photograph of a lithograph by Delacroix in his collection and being told by Degas, "I've waited twenty years for that Delacroix. Let others do the same."

To a great extent, his was a working, study collection and when it came to his idols, like Ingres, if he could not obtain the original, he would "make up the deficit with photographs," observed Dumas.

As a typical serious collector, he was concerned about proper conservation and restoration. "Yet this concern did not always prevent Degas from making mistakes in his own collection; in his inventory he bitterly regretted "the too-hard lesson" of having too much varnish removed from one of his favorite Ingres paintings, Robert Freeing Angelica," Dumas noted, adding that it was a painting he had copied years before he had acquired it.

His abandonment of the plan for a Musée Degas, Dumas suggests, might have stemmed from a disenchantment with the administrative problems of establishment such a venture, similar to those that were associated with the gift of painter Gustave Caillebotte's collection to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 1897, "an establishment he despised as a vehicle of the state." Collectors, after all, are temperamental, egotistic and onery, as most museum directors and curators know.

The catalogue documents other new museums created by Léon Bonnat and Gustav Moreau and Dumas surmises that "For Degas, the overriding interest lay in extending the collection rather than in planning a permanent home for it, a situation analogous to his well-known difficulty in ever reaching the point of considering a work finished. What excited Degas was the thrill of the search and the beauty of the objects he found."

Like all collectors, Degas made some mistakes: "Degas's one landscape by [Theodore] Rousseau, the preeminent Barbizon painter - a barren, mountainous view, The Valley of Saint Vincent….was bought by mistake; seeing it from the back of the salesroom, Degas thought it was a Corot," Dumas relates.

Paintings are outnumbered by drawings and prints in the exhibition, reflecting perhaps Degas's remark that "If I had to live my life again, I would work only in black and white." Thankfully, that was not the case, although his black-and-white career was marked by innovation and high quality.

Some observers have harped on the fact that Degas, never married, was too detached and, despite his warm pastels, rather cold.

Near the end of his life, his eyesight was failing, but one feels that his intellectual and artistic quests never quit. The bulk of his "art" collection consisted of studies. That is what art is really about: studying, learning, trying to understand, trying to render, trying to create. It is very easy for the casual viewer, to look at a painting and say, "wow," "great," "good," or "weak," or "why?" A work of art should stand on its own, without labels, without the pretence of a great gallery, a fabulous provenance, a distinguished literature. It should be an invitation to appreciate an artist's intent, struggle and victory in "getting it out," in transcending the privacy of his personal reactions, impressions, sensitivities and spewing out his communication, statement, whimsy.

This is a serious, fine exhibition that the museum should be proud of as it stimulates examination of cross-fertilizations, inspirations, obsessions, ideals, follies, and loves.

What would Degas be painting today and whom would he invite to see his latest acquisitions?

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